The hiatus lasted 361 days. From March 11, 2020 — when the 76ers topped the Detroit Pistons on the night Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 — until this past Sunday, March 7, the Wells Fargo Center hosted zero games open to spectators.
Last week Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley announced an easing of restrictions on events in the city, allowing up to 15% capacity indoors and up to 20% outdoors.
So on Sunday, the Flyers welcomed 3,023 fans for their game against the Washington Capitals (see photo above). The turnstiles will advance roughly the same number of times when they play the Buffalo Sabres Tuesday night, and the Sixers will follow suit on Sunday when they host the San Antonio Spurs.
It’s not exactly an opening of the floodgates, but in a pandemic, when caution is king, local businesses welcome any positive development. And an additional 3,000 people descending upon a venue just a short walk away within the South Philadelphia sports complex translates to excellent news for the recently opened Live! Casino.
“Even though it was very limited capacity at Wells Fargo, the fact that there was actually live sports with fans added a really great energy to the [stadium] district,” Live! Senior Vice President of Marketing Mario Maesano told Penn Bets regarding Sunday night’s action. “People had been waiting for this for so long. So the excitement and energy that was in the district, but more importantly on the casino floor, you could actually feel it.
“And we did get a little pop in terms of volume before and after the game. We saw some pre- and postgame activity — a lot of orange shirts running around here.”
One step at a time
It’s been a gradual rollout for Pennsylvania’s 14th brick-and-mortar casino, starting with a by-reservation-only opening on Jan. 19, followed by an opening to the general public on Feb. 11, one week ahead of schedule.
As expected, earnings were modest at the outset. The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board reported that in 13 days of operation in January — open primarily for loyalty program members — Live! won $2.3 million on slot machines and $1.4 million from table games, a tiny sliver of the $311.1 million in total gaming revenue collected in the state that month.
“We’re where we expected to be in terms of volume considering that the city’s COVID restrictions are tighter than the rest of the state, certainly tighter than New Jersey,” Maesano said. He noted that, since opening to the general public, Live! has experienced much the same as other casinos in terms of butting up against capacity limitations. The casino keeps a count of customers every hour of every day, but it only hits the limits “to go one in, one out for brief periods of time at peak hours on the weekends.”
At least as important as volume during these first couple of months of business is customer satisfaction, building loyalty among patrons who feel comfortable visiting during the pandemic.
“The feedback that we’re getting right now is what we hoped for in terms of the customers’ excitement about the facility,” Maesano said. “We wanted to create a sense of ‘wow’ by building a product that didn’t exist here in this market, and the feedback we’re getting from our customers is that this is something new, something different, something exciting, and something that the city really needed.
“We like to say we built the casino that Philly really deserves, and the feedback we’re getting is that’s what we did.”
April should put a little spring in step for Live!
Still, this Live! property can’t possibly approximate in February and March what it will feel like on, say, a crowded Eagles game day in the fall, especially if a sufficiently vaccinated population is able to move freely and comfortably about the casino in a manner approximating pre-pandemic life.
But Maesano doesn’t think Live! will need to wait that long to notice a different vibe.
“Once we get into April, and you have the Sixers, the Flyers, and the Phillies all going, even with limited capacity, that’ll definitely change the energy of the district,” he said. Based on current restrictions, Citizens Bank Park will host about 8,800 fans for Phillies games. “Especially on those nights when you have a couple of the teams playing at the same time, that’ll add a lot of great energy to the district and volume to the casino.”
While no casino operator would ever hope to open the doors for the first time during a health crisis like COVID-19, there is some potential upside to being able to open in stages and experience a measure of trial and error before massive crowds descend — as will surely be the case at the perfectly situated Live! casino when life and sports return to the old “normal.”
“There are positives and negatives to every situation,” Maesano said. “It does help a little bit, in terms of testing our systems and processes — though they’re pretty air-tight as they are.
“But we’d obviously much prefer to be open as if everything was normal. We’d much prefer to have full-capacity stadiums and no restrictions on our customers when COVID passes. We can’t wait until the day when it gets to full capacity and really see how the energy changes.”